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NATO Looks Russia in the Eye, School Year Off to Rocky Start in Balkans

Plus, Russia aims for software independence within seven years, and two top Macedonian politicos take their feud into court.

by Ky Krauthamer, Ioana Caloianu and Anders Ryehauge 2 September 2014

1. New NATO force set for Russian borders


Valeriy.HeleteyValeriy Heletey
The North Atlantic alliance is expected to form a rapid-response force capable of reaching Eastern European areas within 48 hours to counter Russian aggression in the region, The Independent reports.


NATO members are likely to approve the 4,000-strong force when they meet in Wales later this week. It “will include special forces, air, naval and intelligence detachments which will deploy alongside the soldiers of the host nation against an outside threat,” The Independent writes.


Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on the NATO website that the force is part of a “Readiness Action Plan” which “responds to Russia's aggressive behavior  – but it equips the alliance to respond to all security challenges, wherever they may arise,” CNN reports.


Readiness Action Plan bases could be located in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania, according to The Independent.


Rasmussen’s announcement came on the eve of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Estonia ahead of the NATO summit. The choice of a former Soviet republic on Russia’s border for a presidential visit was meant to deliver a clear signal to the Kremlin that its behavior in Ukraine is unacceptable, White House senior director for European affairs Charles Kupchan said.


In other developments:


  • Ukraine’s military strategy will shift to focus on stopping what Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey called a “full-scale invasion” by Russian troops: Wall Street Journal.
  • Russian troops have been seen in Donetsk and in areas to its east and southeast, Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said today. Lysenko claimed separatists had pulled back after clashing with government forces between Novoazovsk and Mariupol on the night of 1 September: Reuters.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s remark that Russia could “take Kyiv in two weeks” was quoted out of context “and had a very different meaning,” Putin aide Yuri Ushakov said today. Putin used the phrase in a telephone call to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso: Itar-TASS.
  • During inconclusive talks 1 September in Minsk, Ukrainian separatists showed a willingness to give up their demand for full independence in favor of a negotiated settlement. The talks will resume 5 September: Washington Post.


2. Balkan teachers and parents in opening day protests as school year begins


The new school year is off to a rocky start in several former Yugoslav countries, with teachers marching for better pay and protests from parents demanding changes in the curriculum.


An association of teachers’ unions demonstrated in Belgrade on 1 September, opening day of the school year, demanding, among other things, to be exempt from planned cuts in public sector wages, B92 writes. According to association head Dragan Matijevic, the average salary in the education sector is less than the overall national average.


Belgrade is desperate to trim its bloated state budget as it guides its economy toward EU integration and planned cuts to public wages and pensions sparked a wave of discontent.


The protest forced classes to be suspended in 240 schools and shortened to half an hour in 60 others out of the 600 schools affiliated with the 30,000-member association, its leadership said. Education officials said classes were completely stopped in 96 of the country’s 1,764 schools and shortened in 29 others, according to B92.


Gripes over pay also have teachers demonstrating in Montenegro, where the education union announced a one-hour warning strike for today, Balkan Insight writes. But while Serbian teachers are trying to hold on to what they have, Montenegrins are asking for 15-percent salary increases in line with a 2011 agreement to link public-sector wages to economic growth.


“This would not work if there was no room for wage increases, but there is,” union leader Zvonko Pavicevic said.


Other demands include increases in food and transportation allowances and full-time employment for teachers working on part-time contracts.


Education policy was the bone of contention in Bosnia, where several dozen Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) parents from Banja Luka in Republika Srpska refused to send their children to schools that use only the Serbian language curriculum, Balkan Insight writes.


The dispute arose last year when hundreds of Bosniak parents pulled their children out of school for weeks, claiming authorities in the largely Serb entity were reneging on an agreement to use Bosnian to teach their children literature, language, history, and geography.


Republika Srpska, unlike the Bosniak-Croat Federation entity, does not officially recognize the Bosnian language as such, referring to it as “the language of the Bosniak people,” according to Balkan Insight.


In addition, several schools from areas affected by deadly floods in May were unable to finish repairs in time for the start of the new school year.


3. Russian plan to reboot domestic software industry


New measures introduced by the Russian Communications Ministry will favor domestically produced substitutes for imported software, RIA Novosti reports, citing the newspaper Vedomosti.


The ministry wants to support domestic software by what the paper calls a 15 percent “price preference” and “has offered” to set quotas for domestic and foreign software purchases by federal, regional, and local authorities.


Nikolai Nikiforov
Communications Minister Nikolai Nikiforov told RIA Novosti earlier this month that it would take Russia three to seven years to become fully independent in the computer software sector, Xinhua reported.


Russia’s IT sector is already getting less Western owing to Western sanctions. As the Voice of Russia reported in April, companies such as Microsoft, Oracle, Symantec, and Hewlett-Packard were downsizing their Russian operations as a result of the sanctions. When Visa and MasterCard stopped processing transactions to some Russian banks in March, Russia began to develop its own credit card system.


Russian officials have announced increasing independence on several fronts since sanctions were implemented. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said in April that Russia would need to start producing its own industrial machinery instead of importing it, and last month he revealed that imported military components from Ukraine would be replaced with domestic counterparts within three years, Xinhua reported


Some of Russia’s most sensitive naval assets are already being made with only domestic parts and equipment, according to the head of the country’s largest shipyard.


“During construction of nuclear submarine Prince Vladimir [Borei-class] and all other ships, the shipyard does not depend on import,” Sevmash chief executive Mikhail Budnichenko said 27 August, Xinhua reported in a separate article.


Russia plans to deploy eight Borei-class subs by 2020, each capable of carrying 16 ICBMs.


4. Macedonian party leaders face off in court


The long battle of wills between Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his strongest political opponent continued in a courtroom 1 September when a key witness testified in Gruevski’s slander lawsuit against Social Democratic Party leader Zoran Zaev.


Zoran Zaev
Gruevski is demanding 500,000 euros in damages for Zaev’s allegation that he was involved in the improper sale of a bank to Serbian businessman Jovica Stefanovic in 2004.


When Stefanovic took the stand 1 September, he confirmed his purchase of shares in Makedonska Banka but insisted the transaction was legal. He also denied knowing either Gruevski or Zaev, Balkan Insight reports.


Gruevski and Zaev may testify in court today, according to the report.


Gruevski’s conservative VMRO-DPMNE party began its fourth consecutive stint at the helm of the government in June after a strong win in spring parliamentary elections, although parliamentary work is hampered because the Social Democrats refuse to attend sessions in protest against what they say was massive fraud in this year’s parliamentary and presidential elections.


Zaev recently said the party has no plans to end its boycott of parliament, the Macedonian Information Center reports, citing Utrinski vesnik. Zaev outlined the party’s non-parliamentary strategy at a news conference, saying thousands of activists would canvass every family in the country. He said the party would keep exposing cases of government corruption.


5. Russia’s long, slow recovery from Beslan tragedy


A decade on from the Beslan school tragedy in Russian North Ossetia, questions linger about how the authorities handled the crisis, although acceptance of the official explanation is growing, The Moscow Times writes.


The siege began on the first day of the new school year, 1 September 2004, when a large group of Chechen insurgents invaded the school and took more than 1,100 hostages. Two days later, security forces invaded the building after a bomb exploded in the school gym, where most of the hostages were held in stifling heat with little food or water. The final death toll was 385, including 156 children, according to the Moscow paper. The authorities said all but one of the 32 attackers was killed, although some hostages claimed some might have escaped.



The memory of the attack has lingered in Russian memory as few other events in the Chechen wars, Russia Beyond the Headlines writes: “the school has been left untouched. The decision was made to keep the site as a memorial. The blown-up building was not restored.”


As The Moscow Times writes, “While it is clear who took the hostages, mystery still shrouds the question of who initiated the storming of the school building and the subsequent bloodbath between the terrorists, government forces and local vigilantes.”


Similar doubts arose over the official explanations of the 2002 Dubrovka theater siege when Chechen insurgents held more than 900 people hostage in a Moscow theater. Security forces released a secret knockout gas and released the hostages, although 130 people including all the hostage takers died, most as a result of the gas. In 2011 the European Court of Human Rights ordered Russia to pay damages to 64 former hostages and relatives while also ruling that officials did not violate the hostages’ rights by using the still-unidentified gas.


In a sign of decreasing skepticism about the official version of the Beslan events, a large majority, 62 percent, of Russians now believe the authorities did everything possible to save the hostages, a poll by the independent Levada Center has found, although, as Interfax reports, 42 percent of respondents think officials have not revealed the whole truth about the incident.

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Anders Ryehauge is a TOL editorial intern.

Home page image: Beslan residents lit candles in a memorial ceremony 1 September for the victims of the 2004 school tragedy. Image from a video by RT/YouTube


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